In 1866, following the end of the Civil War, provisions were made for black men to serve in the Peacetime Army, and six African-American regiments (two cavalry and four infantry) were established by an act of Congress. Eventually consolidating into four regiments (the 9th and 10th cavalry units and the 24th and 25th infantry units, a total of 4–6,000 men), these black soldiers played an integral part in the pioneering of the American West.
The Cheyenne spoke reverentially of black soldiers who fought with the ferocity and tenacity of buffalo. Hence the name: Buffalo Soldier. (Another theory states that the name came from the soldiers’ black, curly hair.) The general duty of the Buffalo Soldier was protecting settlers on the frontier, but they were also responsible for fighting hostile Indians, protecting railroad crews, building the nation’s infrastructure, guarding and maintaining telegraph lines, and on occasion, providing law enforcement when disregard for the law got a little out of control.
In 1878, Buffalo Soldiers found themselves in skirmishes involving Billy the Kid in the Lincoln County War in New Mexico. This range war involved numerous characters, from sheriffs to horse thieves, and repeated acts of violent retribution. At the request of the terrified townspeople, who had borne the brunt of daylong shootouts between the warring posses, the Buffalo Soldiers entered the scene with enough ammunition to fight a real war. Peace was restored shortly thereafter.
For more than two decades, black soldiers garrisoned the farthest reaches of the frontier, often having to build both the roads to get there and the forts that were to be their headquarters. From the Platte River to the Rio Grande, they fought American Indians, outlaws, and Mexican bandits—not to mention cholera and racism. They were employed in some of the Army’s most notable campaigns against some of the West’s most notorious characters, including Victorio and Geronimo.
During the Indian Wars, Buffalo Soldiers were awarded 18 Medals of Honor and 12 Certificates of Merit for their outstanding duties. True patriots, they had the lowest desertion rates of any other Army units at the time. Until the last regiment was desegregated in the mid-1950s, Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve the United States in WWI and WWII and even charged up San Juan Hill, Cuba, with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.